Monkey-picked tea?  Tea that was picked by monkeys instead of humans?  Though the idea sounds crazy, most tea lovers have seen it for sale and wondered if it was for real.   

(Incidentally, before we go any further, if you’re one of the few that haven’t yet seen “Monkey-picked Tea” for sale, click HERE. )

So is monkey-picked tea for real?  Are there actually specially trained monkeys picking tea somewhere in some remote part of China?  Did a monkey (as the legends tell us) witness a human picking tea and then imitate the action?  Were monkeys used in order to get to tea on the side of treacherous cliffs that humans couldn’t reach?  Are all the monkeys currently picking tea the descendents of a long line of tea-picking monkeys stretching back to antiquity?  Are there still monkeys picking tea in China?  Were there ever?

Illustration from Children’s book depicting monkeys harvesting tea. (1857)

The answer to all of these questions is the same:  no.  But how exactly did this idea of monkeys picking tea get started? 

In 1793, writer Aeneaus Anderson, in the company of British ambassador Earl George Macartney, travelled to China during the reign of the Qianlong dynasty.  Lord Macartney went at the behest of the Royal Family in order to gather information about how tea was grown, processed, and prepared, as well as to secure trade concessions for the East India Company.   According to historian John C. Evans’ Tea in China: The History of China’s National Drink:

“Anderson and other Europeans “invited” into Qianlong’s China were only shown and told what the Chinese desired.  When Anderson saw thick columns of smoke he knew a ‘porcelain factory must lie nearby,’ but never was he allowed to see one in operation.  Questions not meant to be answered were met with blank, uncomprehending stares.  Tea plantations spread out to the horizon on each side of the Imperial Canal but tea harvesting, processing, and even transportation were purposely kept from view.  When information was volunteered, it had to be treated circumspectly.

Once a Chinese man spontaneously offered to explain how tea was picked.  He told Anderson ‘Tea growers anger the monkeys living in the branches of the tea trees.  Out of revenge, the monkeys tear off branches and throw them on the ground.  In this way, tea harvesters only have to pick them up.‘”

Anderson truthfully admitted he had not witnessed the monkey-harvest himself although he nevertheless accepted the story as fact.  All of Europe read Anderson’s book and the monkey tea-picking legend found its way to the West.  This story had a particular appeal and fascination for the Victorians, no doubt due to the furor raised by Darwin’s theory of evolution. 

For over a century, children’s schoolbooks contained the story, and several generations of adults were convinced that tea was actually picked by monkeys.

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